JD, Jiajia and I went to the Kunming UK Visa Processing Office yesterday to hand in the various documents required to apply for Jiajia's UK visa. There seems to be less requirements this time, but the online application beforehand still takes about 3 hours to complete, and I had to do it twice this time after we suddenly realised that applying for a 5-year visa wasn't going to work when Jiajia's passport only had 2 years to run. However, last time we applied we had to fly to the UK Consulate in Chongqing and stay a night in a hotel. At least this time there is a processing centre in Kunming. The 2-year visa still costs some £350 though. Not cheap. And, as ever, there is no guarantee we will get the full two years or, indeed, any visa at all. The website asks for various documents, while the processing centre mentions others and whoever you ask comes back with the set phase "We are not able to advise you on what to supply - it's up to you." Hmmm ...so helpful!
Jiajia's birthday celebrations this year were largely hijacked by JD, who wanted to wear the crown, open the cards and presents, blow out the candles etc.
Jiajia has been gradually getting used to celebrating birthdays. She never really had her birthday acknowledged as a child. She recalls once when her Mum went out to buy her a birthday cake. But, after inviting her school friends round to share it, her Mum returned and said it was too expensive and she should just send her friends home. Ma seems to be trying to make up for it, to some extent, these days. She bought the cake this year and also gave Jiajia some birthday money - more than all previous birthday presents combined! Thankfully my wife is a much, much better Mum.
We visited the Buddha Sculpture Park in Vientiane yesterday. I was last there was in 2006. It's a bizarre collection of sculptures, religious and fantasy, which JD thoroughly enjoyed climbing on and in! It's hot here (30ºC today) and after meandering through the park we sat by the Mekong Rover and ate ice-creams.
Jiajia and her brother "Li" haven't always seen eye-to-eye in the past, but he and his new wife have been surprisingly hospitable and generous so far. His Laos wife "San" doesn't speak English or Chinese, but has been making every effort to connect with JD. It helps that they have a pet monkey! Li works as a taxi driver, but has been transporting us around instead this week (and obviously missing out on fares).
It's been refreshing to see Jiajia and Li laughing and joking together.
JD and I went to the circus again last weekend, this time with Jiajia and Ma-in-law in tow. At one point in the performance JD blew a kiss to one of the East European dancers and was rewarded with a big kiss blown back, After the show ended, he insisted on running over to get a hug from "his blue lady"! She seemed happy to oblige. What a flirt!
Jiajia and I have been married for six years now. The traditional gifts for six years are apparently candy and iron. If I were to list all my wife's good points, sweetness and strength of character would make the top three (generosity would be number one, since you ask!). ....admittedly I'd struggle to name more than five (kidding!)
One failing, however, would have to be forgetfulness - suffice to say when I handed her a bunch of flowers and a handful of cards yesterday, she had no idea why!
Today was Children's Day in China and JD's Kindergarten took over the Kunming City Stadium for the morning to allow each class to perform their well-practised dances.
One parent of each student had been drafted in to perform with the children and Jiajia made her excuses. So I was one of four Dads along with twenty-five Mums! We've been rehearsing for 6 weeks.
Our performance today was 11th out of 16, so a certain amount of tedium had crept into the audience as we began to strut our stuff. We started with some hip-hop and then transitioned into traditional ethnic dances. JD did his part this time (having refused to do anything at all at the dress rehearsal, probably because I wasn't able to make it to that practice) and afterwards Jiajia said, "It was beyond my imagination" which I think is a compliment.
My good wife brought our video camera with us too ...and then completely forgot to use it! But they say there will be a professionally put together DVD of the whole event in due course.
Apparently we won first prize ...as did every one of the dance troupes. This is socialist China after all! Altogether it took four hours to get through and then we were told not to bother taking our kids back to school for the afternoon. I'm not sure UK school would get away with that sort of thing!
Jiajia, JD and I enjoyed a nice meal with JD's class teacher yesterday evening. Teacher Gen invited us to join her for a hotpot along with her private student (English name, Grace) and her student's mother who, rather conveniently, owned the restaurant. We had good food and a nice chat about teaching, JD and life in general. I was interested to hear Gen Laoshi say that JD's Chinese is at, or just above, the level of the others in his class and that he often explains things in class in Chinese that he has learned in English (such as how a plant grows or why planes need to travel fast). I know his English is about the level of a 5-year old (and he's not yet 4) too, so in the language arena he's doing well. Less so in the dancing and singing, apparently!
Jiajia, JD and I visited Kunming Zoo yesterday. I was pleased to see they have built new, larger enclosures for the elephants, lions, tigers and giraffes. The smaller animals fare less well (inc a miserable hippo who can barely turn around). Still, a huge improvement on say 10 years ago, helped by the removal of half the animals to a wildlife safari park outside the city a few years ago. JD enjoyed the animals but was most excited about the various rides. So we indulged in a few of those before heading off to a restaurant for a well-earned meal.
I was throwing out some old lesson plan books the other day when I stumbled across this class list from 2008. There in the middle is mention of "Ava". Little did I know I'd be marrying her some three years later! It certainly wasn't love at first sight. I barely remember her, if I'm being honest. I recall she used to get lots of phonecalls in the lesson and have to leave the classroom to deal with them. I know now, of course, that to miss certain calls can cost her business a lot of money but at the time I thought it was all a little bit rude and distracting. (Looking at the list again, there were certainly some oddly named students in that class. Guess I'm lucky I didn't marry "Astor Eagle"!)
JD's Kindergarten organised an outing to a park last weekend, The organised activities started with a team race of Daddies running with their children perched on their feet. Our team won and JD got his first balloon of the day. The second activity was even more inventive. Each team stood next to a large piece of card and their shadows were drawn around. Then the shapes were coloured in to make a unique record of the team. Unfortunately, the sun went behind a cloud when our team were trying to make our shadows so Jiajia and I got to work inventing imaginary shadows which the kids then enjoyed painting [see below]. As Jiajia, JD and I left for lunch in a restaurant with the family of JD's best friend - a cute little girl named QiQi - it just started to rain, so we had certainly got the best of the weather.
It's the wife's birthday today. How old she is depends on which document you look at, since her ever-loving mother had her birth certificate doctored when Ava was a toddler so that she could dump her at school a year early. Nice. Ava is in Shenzhen on business today, but we've got presents and a card lined up for her when she returns tomorrow. Happy Birthday!
We're back in Bangkok. Ava has been keen to visit the Erawan Shrine; not the largest temple in Bangkok but the most famous. She said she wanted to pray to the Buddha there (depite me pointing out that it was actually a statue of Brahma, a Hindu god!). Beside the shrine are a groups of musicians and dancers who will perform for a fee as you pray. It was fun to watch them, but they must get so bored!
I'd read that the Erawan shrine was the target of a bombing last year, killing 27 people so, when I saw an unattended backpack on a bench, I thought it wise to alert one of the guards. He rather sheepishly explained it was his bag and quickly moved it out of sight. Better safe than sorry!
We've arrived in Bangkok, Thailand and settled into our nice hotel. The swimming pool is chillier than we hoped, but we've been given a free upgrade to larger rooms which is a bonus - JD and I in one, and Ava and Ma-in-law next door. We spent today at a rather touristy centre outside of Bangkok.
It was all a lot more expensive than we had been promised but, once there, we felt we had to do some of the activities on offer. So we hired a river boat to see the floating market (most of the shops were on land!) and then JD and I had a short elephant ride.
This week, Jiajia has been concentrating on getting her new flat decorated. This was bought on behalf of her uncle who, as a pensioner, qualifies for a substantial Government discount, but has no money to take advantage of it. He's now decided he doesn't want to live there anyway, preferring to stay in the flat that Jiajia bought for him decades ago. So the flat is ours to use. For the record, her uncle (I call him "Drunkle", as he's never sober) is not technically Jiajia's real uncle - just a family friend whom Ava's grandmother made her promise to look after on her death bed. Not that "grandmother" was technically Ava's grandmother either, but that's another story!
New properties in China are sold as concrete shells, with no floor, no pastered walls and only the most basic of amenities. So Ava has been scouring markets and the internet to buy wooden floorboards, tiles, lights, sink, taps, etc. She timed it so that she could buy a lot of things on 11th Nov, which is "Singles Day" in China (11/11, geddit?). As well as remembering those who can't yet take part in "Valentines Day", it is also famous for big discounts in shops and on internet websites. So Ava was up until 3am getting bargains for the flat from, as the floorboard shop puts it, "...the wood of departure Philisophical world". Quite.
Today is Mid-Autumn Festival in China and Ava's family celebrated with our good friends, the "Dancing Family", and their relatives in a Muslim restaurant yesterday evening. JD and Ava are front right. The woman in green, centre, is Ma-in-law who is still begging to be allowed to live with us again after her "final straw" outbursts a couple of weeks ago. On her left is "Drunkle", Ava's permanently drunk pseudo-uncle whom JD calls "Smelly Man" as he never washes. Yes, we do have a rather weird and dysfunctional family here!
As ever, when the most of the food has been eaten and the conversation gets too fast or heavily dialect for me to keep up with, I usually take JD out for a look around the restaurant grounds. We both get bored at these sort of events after a while. This sign caught my attention, with it's completely unnecessary "mess" in the middle". Now what's all that about?
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